What is ovarian cancer and what are the early symptoms?

·3-min read
Pain, bloating and changes in bowel habits could be early signs of ovarian cancer   (Shutterstock)
Pain, bloating and changes in bowel habits could be early signs of ovarian cancer (Shutterstock)

Ovarian cancer is the sixth most common cancer in the UK, with about 7,500 cases diagnosed each year. Sadly, more than 75 per cent of these cases are diagnosed at stage three or later, when the cancer has already spread into the abdomen or beyond, earning the disease the nickname “the silent killer”.

March is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month and the Ovarian Cancer Trust is launching an array of walking events to “take steps for every single woman diagnosed with ovarian cancer worldwide each year”.

The charity said it is launching the scheme to urge people to “walk in the name” of someone they may know who has been affected. It said: “This March, walk for yourself, for a woman you love and for every woman affected by ovarian cancer and we can make ovarian cancer a survivable disease. You could even win a signed England shirt from your Walk in Her Name captain, Beth Mead.”

Recently a study analysed the purchasing information of about 300 women using information from their loyalty cards and were able to spot cases of ovarian cancer just by what products they bought. In the study, researchers found those who had a “noticeable increase” in the purchase of pain and indigestion medication were among those who were later diagnosed with ovarian cancer, compared with women who did not have the disease.

These changes in their purchasing habits occurred eight months before a diagnosis, with previous results showing ovarian cancer symptoms appearing roughly four months before diagnosis.

It also indicated how many women are treating their initial symptoms at home, often only seeing their GP when it could be too late.

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is the sixth-most common cancer in women in the UK. The disease occurs when abnormal cells in the ovary begin to grow and divide in an uncontrolled way, and eventually form a tumour. The ovaries are the small organs that store the eggs needed to create an embryo.

Only 20 per cent of ovarian cancers are diagnosed in the early stages, which further stresses the importance of spotting the early warning signs of the disease.

Who is at risk of ovarian cancer?

As with most other cancers, age is one of the bigger risk factors, with the disease becoming more common as you get older.

Experts have warned the risk increases steeply from around 45 years old and is far greater among those aged between 75 and 79.

Smoking and a history of the disease in your family are other big risk factors.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer

“Symptoms of ovarian cancer can be hard to tell apart from other common health issues – like irritable bowel syndrome,” said Stephanie Sinclair, science communications manager at Worldwide Cancer Research

She added that among its symptoms are feeling bloated, feeling full after eating, tenderness in the abdomen, no appetite, urgent need to pee, or pain in the pelvis that doesn’t go away.

“Having these symptoms does not mean that a person has ovarian cancer but, if they are experienced frequently, they should always be checked by a GP,” she added.

Other common signs include:

  • Pain in your stomach (abdomen) or lower part of your abdomen that doesn’t go away

  • Swollen stomach (abdomen) or bloating

  • Pain in your abdomen

  • Unexplained tiredness

  • Unexplained weight loss

Changes noticeable when you go to the lavatory or symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, especially if this starts after the age of 50, are other possible early indications of the disease.